Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Guest Post: It's All Greek to Me by Anneke Kamerling

This is the first in a series of extracts by Anneke Kamerling from her booklet called 'Typical Greek' about her experiences as an expat in Greece. You can find out more at

Photo: Chrissi Nerantzi
I know the Greek alphabet. The word itself is Greek. I learned it from my father, before I was taught ancient Greek at school. The advantage is that I can read what is written. The disadvantage is that I do not understand what it means. I must learn Modern Greek, now that I'm established here in Greece. But learning Greek is different from learning English or German and even French is a cinch compared to this complex language.

The ancient Greek language is more than 3000 years old. It is a dead language that no longer develops. Over the centuries, Greece was often conquered and occupied. Especially during the Turkish occupation, which lasted over 400 years, the development of the Greek language virtually stopped. The population continued to speak the language though and also in the Greek music the language was kept alive, but reading and writing at that time was dominated by only a select group of scholars and clerics within the oppressed Greek Orthodox Church. In the 19th century the 'Katherevousa' was introduced. This artificial language, composed by scholars who held to the ancient Greek from ancient times, was taught in schools as the official written language.

The spoken language, which had been through a natural development, differed enormously. After the fall of the colonels the Katherevousa was abolished in 1974. The spoken language, 'Dimothiki', became also the written language. This is the language, which to this day is used in Greece. The language has kept the alphabet of the ancient Greek language, but is constantly evolving with new words like airplane, computer, etc.

I start studying Modern Greek. Some words are recognizable from the Ancient Greek, but these are mostly words that we have integrated into our language, such as psychology, pharmacy, mechanics, etc., so that doesn't help much.

It starts with the simple yes and no. Where is it heading when 'yes' is 'no' (ναι)? Most difficult for me, however, are the language's five is, the two os, the two es and the accented syllables. The accent is not only specific in the Greek language, but also important. The same word spoken with a differently positioned accent can mean something completely different. Often I pronounce words wrong. For example: I ask at a romantic dinner for a sweet prison*... I regularly go one day to the much*... I look through the mosque τζαμί (tzamí) of the window τζάμι (tzámi) and I give my kiss φιλί (filí) a girlfriend φίλη (fíli)... who by the way is also of a different race φυλή (filí). Over time I've learned the difference between children παιδάκια (pedákia) and lamb chops παïδάκια (païdákia), I read a passage χωρίο (chorío) from a book about a village χωριό (chorió) and I am πότε πότε quite upset of the word πότε, or is it ποτέ?* In the beginning I actually said soft μαλακά (malaká) when trying to call someone a wanker μαλάκα (maláka).

It gets more confusing! Not only does the accent play a role, but also the pause between two words is crucial, something the Greeks do not usually take so closely. For example if you order two large cups of tea, δύο τσάι, μεγάλα (dio tsai megála) don't forget to pause at the comma. Otherwise you will be surprised when you get two cups of tea with milk, namely δύο τσάι με γάλα (dio tsai me gála). Anyway, for English people it makes no difference.

But those vowels... That is exactly ακριβώς (akrivós) where I pay a high ακριβός (akrivós) price. The squadron ίλη (íli) bites in the dust ύλη (íli). It costs me liters λίτρα (lítra) of ransom money λύτρα (lítra).
Or even worse, the combination of vowels and stress, for example: I speak μιλώ (Miló) of an apple μήλο (mílo) or, a healthy complexion χροιά (chriá) is no necessity χρεία (chría). Besides όμως (ómos), I am beaten on my shoulder ώμος (ómos) for all that όμως (ómos) in a cruel ωμός (omós) way every time the Greeks were laughing at my blunders!

Φυλακή (filakí) = prison. Φιλάκι (filáki) = kiss
Πολύ (polí) = much. Πόλη (póli) = city
Πότε πότε (póte póte) = occasionally
Πότε (póte) = when and ποτέ (poté) = never

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